I’ve been trying to get a handle on exactly what shape I’d like my burgeoning theological career* to take. And I feel like I’ll have to get a tentative idea soon, as I can see no option that won’t require me to buff up on some language skills for potential doctoral options – the question is which ones to work on.
One idea is biblical scholarship. Literature was my first love, and to return to the study of that in some form would be nice (there is still a sense in which I feel like an English major in exile). The Old Testament and I go way back. The Psalms are, by way of the Liturgy of the Hours, part and parcel of my daily prayer. Job was a particular favourite long before I was a Christian, the Song of Songs affects me greatly, and I do like the idea of becoming competent in Hebrew.
But of course, in addition to having a sensus plenior, the Bible is something of a scholarship fractal. And that scholarship is often of an archaeological sort which is disengaged from literary and theological concerns. Father Barron recently had an article in First Things criticizing the divide between systematic theology and biblical criticism:
Walter Brueggemann’s numerous studies sensitized me, in the postmodern manner, to many of the deep ambiguities in First and Second Samuel. But what most struck me, as I entered deeply into the text itself, was precisely the congruity between Second Samuel and the classical theological and doctrinal tradition. Let me demonstrate this by drawing attention to but one theme out of many I could have chosen.
One of the characteristics of the books of Samuel is that God’s activity, though clear and definite, is never in competition with human agency. According to the author of these texts, the God of Israel never “intervenes” or appears as a deus ex machina.
In fact, the entire narrative—from David’s youth, through his adventures with Saul and Jonathan, to his accession to the kingship and his ultimate demise—makes perfect sense when read through psychological or political lenses. It is a coherent human story. But at the same time, the author insists that through all of this very human drama, through these ordinary events and activities, God is working his purposes out.
But such a state of affairs is possible only if God is not one finite cause among many, not one more item in a nexus of conditioned agencies. Only if God is construed as a properly transcendent actor could this sort of arrangement obtain, for otherwise he would be jostling for position on the same playing field with human agents.
And this, of course, is precisely what we find within the biblical context, wherein God is presented, not as an item, however supreme, within the world, but as the creator of the world in its entirety. Second Isaiah signals this truth with particular clarity by highlighting, over and again, the qualitative otherness of the creator God. Yahweh is not only greater than the other gods; he is incomparable to them.
When we turn to the tradition of systematic theology, we find the same truth articulated in more precise philosophical language. Hence the mainstream Catholic metaphysical tradition refers to God not as a being but as Being itself. In Aquinas’s pithy Latin, God is not ens summum (highest being), but rather ipsum esse subsistens (the sheer act of “to be” itself). Moreover, Thomas insists that God is not an individual, nor a member of any genus, even of that most generic of genera, namely, being.
On the literary side of things, a gander at some of the more recent translations that are put to use in study bibles (such as the New American translation or the New Revised Standard Version) indicates that the sort of people working with these texts simply do not have much poetic sensitivity. However accurate they are, they often fall flat in the actual reading.
My philosophical side is obviously attracted to the realm of systematic theology. In particular, I wouldn’t mind digging deeper into the work of the medieval scholastics. That would require me to take my Latin to a level capable of reading those old textbooks in the original. But in spite of my fondness for scholasticism, I have to admit that it does make for dry reading (the big names of modern times are arguably worse, since many of them have read Heidegger), and I may find myself pining a bit for actual poetry, narratives and the like.
All this is assuming, of course, that I don’t take things on a different course once my Masters is complete.
*reality may prove wanting